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Leave it to Joaquin Phoenix to quit the business after giving his finest performance to date. The role of Leonard Kraditor in James Gray’s Two Lovers is an amazing turn from someone that has been usually relegated to the cool, confident leading man. Yes, I know, his portrayal of Johnny Cash had its moments of vulnerability, but the closest character I can compare this to would be Lucius Hunt from The Village, a shy, kind-hearted soul in love, yet unable to quite find his voice. Never in a million years would I have thought that would be so when looking at the Cannes poster for this film, horribly Photoshopped to include a suave Phoenix between two glam shots of costars Vinessa Shaw and Gwyneth Paltrow. In what could be the worst marketing material item of the year, it is the main reason I had no interest whatsoever to check this film out, (the attached final onesheet does much better). Only when I started hearing the buzz and eventually saw it on many end of year lists did I decide to pop it in. All the praise is warranted for both the lead and the movie itself; this is a very strong drama dealing with the pains of life and the hope for happiness despite our propensity to look right by it.

Phoenix’s Leonard is a thirty-something New Yorker who has recently broken up with his fiancé and moved back home to his parents’ apartment. Our introduction to his character is with an ‘accidental’ fall into the Bay and eventual surfacing where a group of good Samaritans help him remove the water from his lungs. Only when he arrives home and his mother, (a really nice turn from Isabella Rossellini), whispers to her husband that she thinks “he tried it again” do we comprehend the stifling depression that he has. His demeanor is awkward and unsure—confidence is greatly lacking—as he must meet a girl his family has maneuvered over for dinner right after his mid-day swim. It is very refreshing to watch him look at the floor, mumble his way through conversation, and fumble through the dinner full of innocence. He is a young child, always being watched by his parents closely as they prod him to open up and find the happiness he lost when his engagement was broken off. Leonard is on medication and slightly off-kilter, lending him an appearance of inexperienced youth that Shaw’s Sandra finds cute and appealing, like a little dog needing to be taken care of.

Soon, though, Leonard takes on another persona completely; one trying to be cooler than he has in sometime, reaching back to happier days of fun and excitement. It is all precipitated by his meeting a beautiful neighbor, Paltrow’s Michelle, of whom he becomes fast friends with. Becoming self-conscious and highly aware that she is a woman to be coveted, we soon see his walk inherit a hitch in its step, his words become spiced with vulgarities, and his attitude morphing into one devoid of inhibitions. When he joins Michelle and her friends for an evening of clubbing, you can’t help but laugh at his confidence in telling stories, rapping, and even break dancing to impress and cut loose. So, we become familiar with the two sides of his bi-polar nature, two worlds separated by the woman he loves in each. The issue soon becomes how he will be able to cope with this double life after having no one but his solitude to take up his time for so long. One has the security of a prosperous father about to merge companies with his own Dad, completely in love with this broken man on the mend, and the other is a wild card with substance abuse in her past and a boyfriend who is married with a son, yet someone Leonard has fallen for.

The question that the film drives to answer is whether the duplicitous lifestyle will be too much for him to bear, eventually hurting him so heavily that he spirals back into the suicidal tendencies he literally just left behind. Leonard is a complicated fellow that is not easily understood. One could say he creates his own troubles by attaching himself so quickly to anyone that shows some sign of affection, but you must understand the psychological issues he struggles with. Only his mother’s eyes are truly open to her son’s plight, seeing his strange and eccentric activities, yet never judging or scolding. She has to believe that he will find his way or that he’ll find his way back to her if he leaves and is hurt again. The performance is fully realized, creating this man with issues an audience can relate to and a love that cannot seem to find a home to rest. One could say Sandra is the safe answer to his troubles, but that is doing her a disservice, just as saying Michelle is the high-adrenaline fantasy would belittle her own problems and naivety in love.

All three of these characters are in dire need of answers. The triangle Phoenix constructs has been set up to inevitably hurt one, if not all, of the trio when the end is finally reached. They may have stereotypical issues, but none come across as clichéd due to the wonderful performances. Paltrow branches out and shows a vulnerability herself that you sometimes forget she can pull off while Shaw is gorgeous in her own desire to be needed, opening herself up to be loved while risking a devastating letdown that only we the audience can anticipate coming. James Gray has given these two actresses the room and material to sink their teeth into and complement his muse Phoenix. So many small moments resonate and stay with you; the direction is strong and non-invasive, letting the actors speak for themselves. And the ending is so real in its messiness, setting a chain of events in motion, making you question whether motives are pure or all that is left. Watching Phoenix enter the room and walk across with only music playing, drowning out all other sound, is a great sequence that culminates in a brief shot of Joaquin peering into the camera, right at us. It’s a questioning glare that brings us in as part of his decision, either leaving the viewer with a sense of joy or anger depending on his/her interpretation of what has transpired.

Two Lovers 9/10

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photography:
[1] Elias Koteas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix in TWO LOVERS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in TWO LOVERS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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